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Learning to “Fly” Biology

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

A review of Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life, by Robert H. Carlson. Is a future in which people will be able to build synthetic biological systems in their garages out of BioBricks just around the corner?

A Life Devoted to Quantitative Reason

Theodore M. Porter

A review of The Pleasures of Statistics: The Autobiography of Frederick Mosteller, by Federick Mosteller. Edited by Stephen E. Fienberg, David C. Hoaglin and Judith M. Tanur. Despite its flaws as an autobiography, this narrative provides a fascinating view of statistics, Porter says, particularly when Mosteller "almost inadvertently" reveals the personage of the statistician.

Power Failures

Phillip F. Schewe

A review of When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America, by David E. Nye. Nye explores the effects of blackouts as a disruption of social experience and describes the overhaul of the power industry that followed deregulation

Scientists' Nightstand: Massimo Pigliucci

Greg Ross

The philosopher of science reviews his recent reading and favorite authors

How the Sky Became Digital

W. Patrick McCray

A review of A Grand and Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering in a New Era of Discovery, by Ann Finkbeiner. In Finkbeiner’s hands, the story of the creation of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey is both gripping and fascinating

Manufactured Ignorance

Robert Proctor

A review of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Extremist scientists, funded by trade associations and fearful of a regulatory state, have attacked all efforts to trace environmental maladies back to corporate chemicals, say Oreskes and Conway

The Sorrows of Old Werner

Michael D. Gordin

A review of Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and the Bomb, by David C. Cassidy, and Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere, by Cathryn Carson. Cassidy traces the life of Werner Heisenberg in detail from birth through the end of World War II, and Carson focuses on the three decades that followed; both explore the tension between public and private that made Heisenberg such a fascinating and perplexing figure


Ernest Davis

A review of The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Chabris and Simons take as their theme two types of errors, Davis says: those that result from various kinds of gaps in our cognitive abilities and those that arise from the difficulty we have in recognizing those gaps

The Jewels in the Crown

Roger L. Geiger

A review of The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensible National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected, by Jonathan R. Cole. Cole lists the things that make for a great research university, documents discoveries made by university researchers that have changed everyday life, and offers excellent advice that no one is likely to follow, says Geiger

Planet Stewardship

Benjamin K. Sovacool

A review of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, by Stewart Brand. Brand maintains that in order to solve our pressing environmental problems, we need to focus on three key technologies: cities, nuclear power and the genetic modification of crops


Marilyn Lombardi

A review of The Cultural Logic of Computation, by David Golumbia. We are so much under the spell of technology, warns Golumbia, that it’s hard for us to even recognize the ethical, cultural and political costs of computing—let alone address them satisfactorily

Making Historical Comparisons

John R. McNeill

A review of Natural Experiments of History, edited by Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson, and Why America Is Not a New Rome, by Vaclav Smil. When done rigorously, comparisons between and among societies can be quite useful, particularly for understanding causation, say Diamond and Robinson. Smil decries the lack of rigor in the common comparison of the United States to ancient Rome

The Deceptional Life

Steven Vogel

A review of Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage, by Peter Forbes. Forbes first shows how biologists came to understand the significance of mimicry and camouflage in nature and then branches out to discuss the use made of nature’s visual patterns by artists and the military

The Shallows

Anna Lena Phillips

What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

How We Make Knowledge About Climate Change

Noel Castree

A review of A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming, by Paul N. Edwards. Edwards’s monograph relates in detail the effort, ingenuity and informed guesswork required to make sense of weather and climate

The Best Seats in the House

Robert L. Dorit

A review of The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins lays out the evidence for evolution and writes engagingly about the mechanisms that drive the evolutionary process. But the book’s great virtue, says Dorit, is that it reminds the reader of the power of a single idea: descent with modification

The First Proliferation: Waiting for the Soviet Bomb

Frank N. von Hippel

A review of Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly, by Michael D. Gordin. Offering a new perspective on the early U.S.-Soviet nuclear relationship, Gordin describes the key decisions made about nuclear weapons policy while the United States had the only bombs

Darwin’s Islands

Rick MacPherson

A review of Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World, by K. Thalia Grant and Gregory B. Estes; Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution, by Carol Ann Bassett; and Galápagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy, by Tui De Roy, editor and principal photographer. These three books offer a portrait of the beauty, diversity and fragility of the islands where Darwin did so much of his evolutionary thinking.

Erosion of Trust

Jared Farmer

A review of Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country, by Marsha Weisiger. U.S. government officials in the 1930s told the Navajos that they needed to drastically thin their flocks in order to save the Colorado Plateau from severe overgrazing. But this well-intentioned program had dire consequences

The Paisley Leopard

Brian Hayes

A review of Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts, by Philip Ball. This trilogy of books about the modern science of shape, pattern and form is a grand tour of self-organizing systems, says Hayes

An Urge to Understand and Predict

Ralf Dahm

A review of Science: A Four Thousand Year History, by Patricia Fara. It’s hard to imagine compressing 4,000 years of scientific history into 400 pages, but Fara succeeds at it, says Dahm, and “compellingly shows how insightful a backward glance can be”

Archangel with Aqua-Lung

Craig McClain

A review of Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, by Brad Matsen. Matsen portrays Cousteau as a complex man of contradictions, a legendary figure whose life was on a downward arc for the two decades leading up to his death in 1997

The Last Tortoise

Greg Ross

Darwin Tried and True

Robert J. Richards

A review of What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini misunderstand the history of evolutionary biology, says Richards, and they draw the evidence for their arguments against natural selection from scientists whom they believe to be confused about the fundamental mechanisms of evolution

Weathering Nuclear War

Sean L. Malloy

A review of A Nuclear Winter's Tale: Science and Politics in the 1980s, by Lawrence Badash. In this intricately detailed history, Badash examines both the scientific origins of the concept of nuclear winter and the debate over its relevance to nuclear policy and the Cold War arms race

Science Fact, Climate Fiction—Clarifying the Debate

Dimitri Zenghelis

A review of Science as a Contacts Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate, by Stephen H. Schneider; Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, by James Hansen; and Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, by James Hoggan with Richard Littlemore. Schneider, Hansen and Hoggan all say that their efforts to communicate the urgency of the problem of climate change to policy makers and the general public have met with powerful resistance. The consequences, Zenghelis warns, could be tragic

Romantic Discoverers

Frederick Gregory

A review of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. This is a wonderfully engaging narrative, says Gregory; Holmes’s biographical storytelling shows the impact of science on the hearts as well as the minds of Humphry Davy, Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, and William and Caroline Herschel

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